On Translating Bushra al-Fadil's The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away – Interview with Max Shmookler

Max Shmookler is the translator of 2017 Caine Prize winning short story, The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away. He is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. His research focuses on Arabic literary history with a particular interest in modern Sudanese prose. He has translated the Sudanese authors Nagi al-Badawi, Sabah Sanhouri and Adil al-Qassas for Words Without Borders. It occurred to me that though we enjoy a translated piece and find it accessible, not many people are interested in the story behind a translation. I spoke with Max via email and we had this rich conversation on translation. Enjoy it.

Max, congratulations on translating the story that has gone on to win the most prestigious literary award for African writing. I think it’s quite fascinating that Arabic isn’t your native language or part of your ethnicity. Being American, I’m curious to know why you’re passionate about the Arabic language and Sudanese literature.

Thank you for the kind words, Jennifer. A translation is really only as good as the original text, on the one hand, and one’s colleagues, on the other. On the first account, Bushra deserves all the recognition he has received for this story and his larger oeuvre; on the second, my gratitude goes to my colleague Najlaa Osman Eltom for all her help and insight into the challenges of translating such a rich work of literature, as well as my co-editor of The Book of Khartoum, Raph Cormack.

Your question might be answered in many ways. Being American, I am aware of – and frequently disgusted by – the impact of our foreign policy decisions on other countries. The most overt example in recent years is the invasion of Iraq, but there are many other ways in which America makes its power known in the world at large, and the Middle East in particular.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001, happened during my first week in college, not far from New York City. This shaped my college experience and my growing curiosity about the Middle East, leading me first to Palestine, and then Egypt, where I lived for about four years. In Egypt, I worked with many Sudanese refugees, and it was their kindness and sensitivity despite adversity that drew me to travel to Sudan.

Max Shmookler, translator of The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away

But I suspect this autobiographical narrative will be familiar to many readers: well-intentioned American kid travels to a foreign land and comes of age. It only goes so far in explaining my passion for the Arabic language and its rich literary history. Beyond personal and political reasons for Americans to engage with the Middle East, Arabic is a fascinating language, one that has accumulated many subtle layers of meaning over the past millennium and a half. Its rules have been codified by grammarians and cleverly subverted by poets; its vocabulary is infused with the languages of those peoples who converted to Islam, as well as those (such as the Ottomans) who subsequently came to rule the Muslim world. Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, of course, but also of the pre-Islamic odes of Arabia, an entire system of linguistics and hermeneutics, and pioneering work in mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences.

In other words, by the time of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, Arabic already had a thousand-year-long textual history. When a capable writer like Bushra al-Fadil picks up his pen (or types on his keyboard), much of this heritage is available to him through the language in which he writes. His words, and the style in which he writes, are only enriched by the distinct features of the Sudanese Arabic dialect and Bushra’s frequent allegorical commentary on the complex problems facing the Sudanese people today. Arabic is frequently called a “bahr” or sea, and indeed in my experience there is no better metaphor for the challenges and pleasures of attempting to navigate it.

Max Shmookler speaking on Adab in Its Own Terms: A Study of the Maqāmāt of Niqūlā al-Turk Source: Youtube

I would add one further observation, if you will. I am an American Jew whose intellectual life revolves around the Arabic-speaking world and its literary history. In a word, I study the Other. Not just any other, but an Other often perceived by “my own” people to be the enemy. Over my years living in the Middle East, I have encountered some anti-Semitism, certainly; but it is in the American Jewish community that I have witnessed with greater frequency and intensity that particularly repugnant blend of ignorance, privilege, and certainty that are at the root of prejudice (the Canary Mission is a recent and disturbing example).

As a student of “the enemy,” I have much in common with Armenians studying Turkish, Arabs learning Hebrew, and all those whose curiosities transgress the boundaries of the community to which they are assigned by birth. Over the past few years, I have become increasingly aware that those who study their own people—Jews in Jewish studies, Arabs in Arab studies, and so on—are much less frequently asked “why?” The reasons are presumed to be self-evident: you are an Arab, you study Arabic, you translate Arabic, etc. In the logic of identity politics, this seems to make sense. But this makes me wonder whether you would have asked the same question were my name Kareem or Abdullah, or if Bushra al-Fadil were in fact a distinguished poet writing in Hebrew rather than Arabic. More importantly, I wonder what we lose when assuming that identity can or does explain one’s interests and passions.

Wow. That’s a rich one. Takes me back to my days in secondary school when in selecting one Nigerian language as a subject of study, we were often encouraged to pick a language that we did not speak. I guess it is only natural (a faulted one, maybe) to assume that people generally tend to love  and get attracted to things they have been exposed to. But now, I do agree that such influences can definitely be independent of a person’s origin. When Bushra was announced winner of the Caine Prize, I told a friend it was a win for translation, an aspect of writing that’s usually unrecognized, especially in the African literary space. Everyone talks about the writer and publisher, but hardly the translator. How do you feel about this?

I cannot speak for other translators, but personally, I am not seeking much recognition and was not disappointed to find people talking about Bushra and his story rather than Max and his translation. To be compelling, I think a translation must obscure the act of translation itself; perhaps the fact that The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away won out over stories composed in English demonstrates this point. To play a bit on your word choice, then, I would say that the translator is recognized when his or her story fails to find that balance between the cadence of the original text and a familiar, accessible, independent idiom in the new language.

I can’t begin to imagine how tasking it must be to translate a literary work, taking into cognizance style, diction and other literary devices, and making sure these are not lost. With Bushra’s work for example, the language was poetic. And the tone, sometimes sad, sometimes excited. Was it something you took from the original Arabic version? How do you ensure that a translated piece – after editing and a series of back and forth exchanges with the writer – reads as good or accurate as its original? That the style, humor, alliteration, etc aren’t lost or mixed up? And what were the major challenges you encountered in Bushra’s story while working on it?

Throughout the process, I corresponded with Bushra over email, and I worked closely with Najlaa Osman Eltom on many of the more difficult passages. We were fortunate to have the additional feedback of Raph Cormack, my co-editor on The Book of Khartoum, in which Bushra’s story was first published in 2016, and Ra Page, the editor at Comma Press. Each deserves credit for the success of the translation. (This incidentally further obscures the translator as some lone individual in favor of a view of translation as a collaborative process).

The central challenge, in my opinion, was how to translate a text which creates meaning not only by narrating a story, but through the interplay of the narrative and the style in which it is written. Bushra, for instance, frequently writes in a loose rhyming prose style known as “saja.” Saja has been around since the Qur’an, and became quite popular as a rhetorical feature of classical Arabic epistles, sermons, and short narrative episodes known as the maqamat. The more sophisticated forms of saja not only rhyme on the last syllable of a given clause, but also repeat morphological forms common in Arabic.

The Book of Khartoum.

In the introductory paragraph, for instance, Bushra uses a long string of such rhyming couplets. To see/hear the rhyme, here is one in transliteration:

shahhādhīn wa jazzārīn wa harāmiya, qāfizīn wa mādihīn wa junūd ghulāẓ

A careful look makes clear that the first and second words (shahhādhīn and jazzārīn) not only end on the same sound, but share the same morphological form, that is, the same arrangement of short vowels, long vowels (represented by the line above), and consonants. I am not sure it would be possible to translate this literally; however, through alliteration and end-rhyme, we tried to capture the playful, poetic spirit of the passage with the following translation:

beggars and butchers and thieves, prancers and Prophet-praisers and soft-sided soldiers.

Another challenge in Bushra’s writing is that he pushes the boundaries of sense in order to convey the psychological experiences of his characters. For instance, what does it mean to call oneself “spider-pocketed,” as the narrator does? Or similarly, what precisely is the significance of a Bedoiun “on his second visit to the city”? Would such a Bedouin not wear a turban on his first trip? I never received a satisfying answer to such questions, likely because Bushra was referring to a discrete, discernible thing, but rather attempting to express the narrator’s general sensibility or perhaps the larger political climate in Khartoum at the time of composition. In so doing, he flirts with absurdity and obscurity.

While as readers, we tend to accept and even enjoy such departures from precision, yet as a translator, strategic nonsense demands new approaches to translation. Indeed, in a story with such political undertones, and written not long after Bushra himself left Sudan in the post-coup purge, the notion that bits of language would intentionally defy sense begins to, as it were, make more sense.

Speaking more broadly, one might ask what the translator is to do with poetic ambiguity in a text? We are trained—both professionally as philologists and culturally as readers and writers—to believe that each word has a meaning, or multiple meanings. But what about a word, a sentence, or even a passage which was written to be open to multiple interpretations—how are we to preserve that ambiguity for the readers of a translation? There is a strong temptation to interpret (often masquerading as “clarifying” an obscure passage), but we tried, to the best of our ability, to preserve the open conclusion to this story, to leave the reader to reflect and perhaps reread.

At the end of the story, there was a footnote explaining some foreign concepts. But at the same time, I noticed a line that was left untranslated or explained: zamjara zamjara. Firstly, why was it necessary to provide a footnote even though the story itself is a translation? Secondly, how do you normally decide which lines get translated and which remain as is? 

A translation must convey, without lengthy insertions into the story, enough of the cultural and historical context to ensure that new readers understand at least some of what would be implicitly understood by the reader of the original. In other words, our task was to translate the story, not the interpretative apparatus (often called “culture”) that Bushra could reliably assume the Arabic reader would already possess (to varying degrees given the enormous diversity of Arabic readers). For instance, no one reading in Arabic would need the word “darwish” explained to him or her; however, some English readers may not know the word “dervish,” even though it is common enough to have entered English in a transliterated form. The lines of poetry, on the other hand, are a common form of intertextual acknowledgement in Arabic literature, here sown into the dialogue and a number of subtle references. Some Arabic readers would not pick up on such references; a fortiori English reader unfamiliar with the Arabic literary heritage. In these cases, footnotes seemed necessary lest something important be lost. In this sense, you might have understood the footnotes as a skeletal outline of the rich cultural background that an Arabic reader brings to a text, and which cannot be translated in the body of the story.

Bushra al-Fadil, author of The Story of the Girl Whose Bird Flew Away

Your question about zamjara makes me laugh (with pleasure). Just for fun, I looked up the Arabic word (muzamjara) in the most well-regarded medieval lexicon, Lisan al-Arab by Ibn Manzur. Ibn Manzur lists a number of meanings for the word, beginning with “sound” and then “a sound from the belly”. He goes on to explain that if a man screams and hollers, one might say, “I heard a zamjara and a ghadhmara from so-and-so.” (Ghadhmara is a synonym that also just happens to have the same morphological form.) A lion’s roar was considered a zamjara by one lexicographer quoted by Ibn Manzur; a bird’s song by another. And since Arabic is a sea, the associations continue. Zamjara, like ghadhmara and zamazim (another synonym), is onomatopoetic, and I wanted to retain some of the sound of the word which not only refers to a wide range of types of human and animalistic roaring and shouting, but performs that sound when it is read to oneself or even more so when read aloud. Having now done a bit more digging into the wide semantic field of this word, I realize there may have been more accurate ways to render it, but doing so would have deprived the English reader of the pleasure of sounding out the sound essential (if often unconscious) to the experience of reading the original.

Really interesting learning about these sounds. How long does it usually take you to translate one whole piece?

This depends. Much of what I translate is in saja, which again is rhyming prose. It presents many of the same difficulties as Bushra’s story, and usually takes a long time over a long time. This past year, I have begun to work on a collection of maqamat (the short narrative vignettes I mentioned earlier) from the late 18th and early 19th century. It takes me perhaps six weeks to two months to translate one maqama, usually between four and six pages in lengthy. My translations rhyme, much like the Arabic originals and the remarkable English-language translations recently produced by Humphrey Davies of Leg Over Leg by the Lebanese polymath Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq. Davies is a model and an inspiration.

I understand now why some sentences in The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away read like a Shakespeare’s sonnet. Generally, what’s a typical translation day for you like and how would you describe the editorial process involved in translating?

I tend to translate slowly, over a long period of time, just a little bit each day. The first draft is usually written in the margins of the original text, literally filling the empty space with a second language. I then tend to transfer this onto fresh sheets of lined paper and edit it as I go. At some point I will type it up, identify those passages I do not understand and those words I do not know, and begin to laborious process of looking things up and speaking with those who are much more knowledgeable than me about the wide range of topics and ideas a given text might touch upon.

Beyond being good in writing in the native language of the work to be translated, what other tools and skills should a translator have?

I do not have general rules for what skills or tools make a good translator, beyond patience, reliable colleagues, and at least three dictionaries. When working on Sudanese Arabic, it is helpful not only to have a copy of Lisan al-Arab, which I mentioned before, and the pretty standard Hans Wehr English-Arabic dictionary, but also the remarkably-detailed Dictionary of the Arabic Dialect of Sudan by Aun al-Sharif Qasim. Text and context are intimately related, and it is also helpful to travel to places, read broadly about a place, speak with people and develop relationships, and of course seek help and input at all stages.

Translations aside, what other things are you involved in? 

I am a PhD candidate in the department of Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian Studies at Columbia. I’ve finished my degree requirements, and I have just started two years of dissertation research, largely in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, after which I will write up and hopefully defend my dissertation.

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